Face of the Franchise
Morgan Lewis’ road from tragedy to triumph.
by Sam Riches / @sam_riches
It was November 6, 2007. The Oilers, a Division II basketball team from the University of Findlay had just finished traveling 100 miles south down Route 23, a long stretch of road also known as the “Hillbilly Highway.” A route that had become notorious for two things over the years: serving as a major connection point for traffickers bringing drugs north from Kentucky, and for passing through the home counties of various country music stars. For the Oilers, they were venturing down state to play an exhibition game against the Division I Ohio State Buckeyes.
Exhibition games tend to happen quietly and fade from memory quickly. The best players don’t always dress and the games usually carry little significance. Morgan Lewis didn’t know it yet, but this would be one of the most important games of his life.
John Henry Lewis was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2007, right after the conclusion of Morgan’s sophomore season. By the time the doctors found the cancer, which originated in his lungs, it had spread to his liver, kidneys and bones. The Lewis family was informed that he had two months to live.
On the way home from the doctor’s office, John looked at Morgan and with knowing confidence said, “I promise you I will watch you play one more game.”
The Oilers filed into the St. John Arena a few hours before tip-off, an imposingly large cement structure with the capacity to hold over 13,000 fans. The arena had a long history; it was here that the Buckeyes captured the 1960 National Championship and five straight Big Ten titles from 1960 to 1964.
The Oilers were used to playing their home games at Croy Gymnasium, a modest building with the ability to hold 2,000 people, though the crowds were usually far smaller than that. The Buckeyes were heavily favored in the game and rightfully so. Their previous season had ended with the sting of defeat. Ten points shy of being crowned National Champions, losing to the Florida Gators 84-75 in front of 50 thousand rabid fans at the Georgia Dome.
If the Oilers were distracted by the bright lights and taunting crowd, they didn’t show it. They surprised everyone by ending the first half neck-and-neck with the Buckeyes, 53-53.
At the start of the second half, Ohio State forward Othello Hunter held the ball at the top of the Oilers’ three-point line, sizing up their defense. He swung the ball across his body, left to right, and Findlay’s Josh Bostic slapped it loose.
Bostic emerged with the ball and immediately began to streak up the middle of the hardwood, his burnt orange jersey in direct contrast to the starch white of the Buckeyes. On the left wing, Lewis put his head down and began bounding forward, moving with graceful but giant strides. Any defender that tried to check him was quickly overtaken.
As Bostic approached the Buckeyes’ net, he glanced over and stole a quick glance at Lewis. It was all the communication they needed. The ball floated from Bostic’s hands, coasting by the helpless defenders and momentarily disappearing against the backdrop of the crowd.
Lewis planted his feet and pushed his 6-5 frame into the air, extending his right arm and reaching back as far as his body could allow. As the ball landed in his outstretched hand, the noise of the crowd faded to a dull buzz. Hovering in the air, Lewis held his position—and then in one powerful motion, spiked the ball through the rim.
In perfect synchronization the crowd released a collective gasp. With a smile creasing his cheeks, Lewis ran back down the court. On the sideline, John smiled too.
Findlay went on to defeat Ohio State that evening. The final score read 70-68. After the game Lewis got on the bus and headed back north, this time to Painesville, his hometown. At 3:59 am his phone rang. It was his father. The SportsCenter Top 10 had just played for that evening, Lewis’ soaring and twisting aerial display was play No. 2.
“Morgan, a father couldn’t be more proud of his son. I am honored to call you my son and so blessed.”
He heard John’s voice crack. He felt the emotion, the sincerity, the love in his voice.
“I know you are going to be okay, your dreams are coming true. I love you.”
Morgan remembered the doctor’s words: “Two months, maximum.”
And he remembered his father’s words: “I promise you I will watch you play one more game.”
Seven months had passed since the doctors made the diagnosis.
John died that night. He had kept his promise.
August 21, 2011. Draft night.
Not the NBA, the National Basketball League of Canada. Not Madison Square Garden, a conference room in the back of the Roger’s Centre. To the men in attendance, it didn’t matter any less.
Andre Livingston, the acting commissioner, stood on a raised platform and looked out at the group of hopeful faces.
He narrowed his eyes to the piece of paper in his hand.
“With the first pick the Oshawa Power select Morgan Lewis out of Findlay College.”
Dressed in faded jeans, a striped grey polo and worn sneakers, Lewis shook Livingston’s hand and placed a white cap adorned with the NBL of Canada logo on top of his head.
It was a moment marking the first step in a future that will commemorate Lewis as either the cornerstone of a successful league or as a trivia question.
“I do feel that there is some added pressure and expectations by being drafted as the number one overall pick,” he says. “The strange thing is that I feel that I’ve placed the most pressure on myself.”
Not only is the weight of the Oshawa franchise resting on Lewis’ shoulders, but in some part, the weight of the entire league. If the top pick is deemed a disappointment, it will be seen as reflection of the league itself.
“All the pressure and expectations I’ve seen or thought about, it’s all turned into motivation,” he continues. I’ve been so motivated this last month or so. This season is going to be something special, it really is.”
Oshawa, Ontario is a city of almost 150,000 people, sitting near the shore of Lake Ontario. The Power will be the first professional basketball franchise in the city’s history. Like Detroit, Oshawa is known as the Motor City due to its sprawling General Motors factory and like Detroit, Oshawa is suffering through the economic hardship that accompanies a major industry collapse. With the factory employing a large portion of the residents, the effects have been felt across the city.
The Power are now in a situation where they can breathe new life and excitement into a community that needs it. The name for the franchise was derived from an online poll posted on the team’s website. The fans chose the name Power as an embodiment of strength, fueled by a community coming together as one.
In Oshawa, Lewis will be led by head coach and former NBA player, Mark Strickland, a man who has experienced the ups and downs that accompany floating through the minor league system. Strickland reached the NBA through a series of ten-day contracts with the Indiana Pacers, before landing with the Miami Heat for four seasons from 1996 to 2000. There he averaged just over four points and two rebounds a game, while playing around 10 minutes a night. After his last season with the Heat, he made stops in Denver, New Jersey, Atlanta and Dallas before quietly exiting the League in 2003. Since his playing days he’s been a coach and scout for several different teams, most recently serving as an assistant with the Baskersfield Jam of the NBDL.
His journey is not lost on Lewis, who is embracing the opportunity to learn from someone who has seen it all before.
“I’ve spoken with coach Strickland numerous times and for some reason when he talks I can’t do anything but listen,” says Lewis.
“I look up to him and his career a lot. I see a lot of similarities in the road he took to get to be the man he is, and the path that I’m on now.”
It is a path that John Henry Lewis knew his son could take. A path that has led Lewis to semi-professional basketball teams in Iceland, Germany, and now, Oshawa, Ontario.
On November 3, Lewis and his teammates will play their first regular-season game at the General Motors Centre, a multi-purpose arena in the downtown core of the city.
It is in this arena that the next stage of Lewis’ career will be defined. The future of the Oshawa franchise and the league as a whole will always be interlinked with Lewis’ personal achievements. However it unfolds, Lewis knows all he can do is continue to improve his game and embrace each opportunity that comes his way.
“I’m too young to be proud of anything,” he says. “Right now I’m trying to make the right moves and put the hard work in so that one day I can look back and be proud. I’m just ready to work hard and learn everything I can from Coach Strickland, Gary Durrant, and the rest of my Oshawa family, and praise God every chance I get.”